Zimbabwe passes grim cholera milestone

As the situation in Zimbabwe worsens, British Red Cross chief executive Sir Nicholas Young makes an urgent personal plea for funds:

At some point in the past three weeks Zimbabwe passed a grim milestone. On one day in January, Zimbabwe registered cholera case number 60,001.

A week before Christmas 60,000 was considered the worst-case scenario. Now, humanitarian organizations working in the country fear that the toll could climb to 100,000 or beyond. Whatever the final number, Zimbabwe is now in the grip of the worst cholera outbreak on this continent in 15 years. In six sickening and painful months, Zimbabwe has surpassed Africa's continent-wide annual average of cases and deaths.

And yet despite the constant media focus and the pledges of solidarity from around the world, efforts made by the humanitarian community to arrest this slide are being undermined because we are rapidly running out of funds.

Treatment centres

In a typical case in Kadoma, there is a Red Cross cholera treatment centre. There, a football pitch had been co-opted by tents and aid organizations and is a refuge for 100 people suffering from this awful illness.

A young woman arrived on an oxcart. As her details were recorded, this poor woman lay on a tarpaulin, shivering with exhaustion and dehydration.

As the situation unfolded, a man approached a Red Cross worker. He explained that his village had lost 10 people in recent days to cholera. He pleaded to arrange some transportation as, just like the girl, all the cases in his village had to be brought in by cart or wheelbarrow. Ten kilometres, he said, is a long distance with that kind of load in this type of heat.

His request was taken to the nurse in charge. "What vehicles?" she asked. "There are not that many unused trucks or cars, and besides, where would we get the money for the fuel?"

The girl outside will be okay. Cholera is not a difficult illness to treat. But then she will go home and there's no guarantee that the cholera can be kept at bay.

We can picture her village. If it is typical of rural Zimbabwe today it will most likely have no running water, no sanitation, no food. She will be encouraged to practise basic hygiene and to drink from clean water sources. She and her family will be visited by Red Cross volunteers and this message will be reiterated.

But what would you do if your only water source was a muddied river, and if you could only carry what you and your family could drink?

Asylum seekers

In an attempt to escape their desperate situation thousands of Zimbabweans have fled the country. Some have made it to the UK where they have sought asylum only to find themselves faced with a new set of challenges.

An estimated 11,000 Zimbabweans have had their claims for asylum rejected but remain in the UK frightened to return to Zimbabwe. Although the British government is not forcing them to return home because of the current situation in the country, it has not granted them any type of leave to remain here. This throws them in a limbo - unable to seek employment and barred from accessing benefits or key services.

Many of these vulnerable refugees face isolation and exclusion from any sort of normal life here. Often they are skilled and motivated people who would much rather pay their way and contribute to the society in which they have sought refuge. However they find themselves experiencing humanitarian suffering and hardship as a result of the current policy.

Clear impact

The Red Cross offers help to Zimbabwean people at both ends of the immigration process. In the UK, the British Red Cross helps destitute asylum-seekers who invariably have nowhere else to turn for help; while our current Zimbabwe and the region appeal is supporting the country through its cholera crisis.

But so much more needs to be done. The truth is that Zimbabwe's economic and infrastructural collapse sit hand-in-hand with this cholera outbreak. None of this is to say that organizations like the Red Cross don't have a key role to play. The infrastructure issues must be addressed, but they are longer-term concerns.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is doing a lot, and the impact is clear. For starters, we are producing millions of litres of clean water and digging sanitary latrines.

We are supporting overworked and under resourced clinics with drugs and expertise, and our volunteers are in the remotest villages explaining to people the simple steps they must take to identify and avoid the illness.

Lack of funds

And yet, despite the desperate needs, and despite the very real impact that the Red Cross is having across the country, our cholera operation is scarily under-funded. Unless this changes we will be forced to revise our plans. And this is simply untenable. The resources needed for battling cholera on the frontlines must be provided and we urge people to give whatever they can to support our appeal.

In the UK, to ease the deadlock over the status of rejected asylum-seekers, we recommend that the Government should consider giving Zimbabwean asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected leave to remain in the UK allowing them permission to work here and support themselves and their families.

Wherever Zimbabweans may reside, they deserve to be part of a supportive community, to have access to health care and to be empowered to contribute positively to their own future. Whether living in a remote rural community in Zimbabwe, or living in destitution in Peterborough, no one should go through a crisis alone.

Sir Nicholas Young
CEO, British Red Cross